Hollywood Darwinism: What Makes An Adaptation Good?

"Charlie Kaufman: The book has no story. There's no story.
Marty: Alright. Make one up."
~ Adaptation.

After recently seeing (and enjoying) The Lightning Thief, despite it's massive changes from the book, I started to think. Most people loathe movies that aren't faithful to whatever it is originally based on (books, video games, other movies, etc.). But this first Percy Jackson film has been getting pretty good reviews all around, despite its changes. So that brings me to the question: what makes an adaptation a good one? Some might argue it has to be exact. Others will say an exact replication is boring. Some might argue that you can forget the plot as long as it keeps the spirit of the original. Others will argue that the spirit is nothing if it misses the point of the plot.

So throughout this article, I want to delve into what I feel makes a good (and bad) adaptation, whether it be from a book or something else.


"Charlie Kaufman: Okay. But, I'm saying, it's like, I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this."
~ Adaptation.

Before we can talk about what makes an adaptation good, we gotta see what makes one bad. And why not start with some of the worst? Most wouldn't say the book version of Eragon is high literature. It's hardly high fantasy. In fact, Christopher Paolini was probably just high when he wrote it (after watching Star Wars in between readings of Lord of the Rings--yeah, yeah, I know, the Monomyth and all that. I'm an advocate of that as well. I just wanted to throw in a 'rip-off' joke. Everybody else does). Point being, while it's not the best book ever written, it at least deserved a better film than what it got. I mean, I felt bad for the guy after seeing that travesty of a film.

So why was it so bad? Well, whatever they didn't cut, they changed. The movie cut major characters, changed others, and diminished the role of one of the only interesting characters in the story (like... from half the book to 15 minutes of screen time). They merged scenes, rushed the plot, and destroyed everything else left behind. In other words, it took out the good and left in the bad (and made it worse) of what was already a mediocre book.

But that's pretty much a given. You take out the good and leave the bad, and you end up with a bad movie. And this can happen mostly in trying to cram an 800 page book into a 2 hour movie (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had a similar 'cram-tastic' issue, but at least that one didn't have the cut/change-for-the-worse extravaganza). That's pretty straight forward. So what other kinds of problems can make a bad adaptation? Well, completely ignoring the source material, or reading a misinformed Wikipedia entry of plots and characters can really damage your adaptation.

For instance, look at either Dragonball Evolution or Super Mario Bros. When you can go "WTF is this? These aren't the characters I know" every 5 minutes, you know you have a problem. I mean, every Dragonball fan knows Goku started as a teenager in high school interested in girls, or that in the classic video game, Mario (Mario) and Luigi (Mario) went to an alternate dimension created by a meteorite where dinosaurs turned into humans and, even scarier, Dennis Hopper.

One step down from ignoring source material is not even knowing the source material enough to ignore it in the first place. Thus is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. This movie tanked so badly that Squaresoft went bankrupt and had to merge with its rival, Enix (thus becoming Square-Enix), just to stay afloat. Its problem? It had absolutely nothing to do with the Final Fantasy video games. Sure there was a guy named Cid, but they even managed to mess that up by spelling it Sid. In other words, they just slapped the FF title on there to make some money, and it backfired utterly and completely. Granted, the movie isn't bad in and of itself. It's terrible as a Final Fantasy film adaptation... but as a film, it's actually decent. But since we're talking about adaptations, we'll go with the former for now.

A step up from the "ignoring" dilemma, however, would be the "Close but No Cigar" dilemma. Such is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Is it stylish and good to look at? Heck yeah. Is it darker and more adult than the first two films? Totally. Does it take the spirit of the book, at the very least? Sorta. Does it pass the adaptation test? No. No it doesn't. And why? Because it missed the point of the plot. The plot of the book was written for two main reasons--both backstory reasons--and both are completely missing from the film. In other words, the movie totally missed the purpose the book was written to begin with, making the film pointless in essence.


"Charlie Kaufman: Okay, we open with Laroche. He's funny. Okay. He says, "I love to mutate plants." He says "Mutation is fun." Okay, we show flowers and... okay. We have to have the court case. Okay, we show Laroche. Okay, he says "I was mutated as a baby. That's why I'm so smart." That's funny. Okay, we open at the beginning of time. No! Okay, we open with Laroche. He's driving into a swamp."
~ Adaptation.

So we've looked at the bad, but we can't look at the great just yet. So what about those adaptations that are just good? They aren't the best adaptations in the world, but they didn't completely screw it up. At the very least, they left it entertaining. However, there's something about them that stops them from being great.

First I wanna talk about a rare case: the source material just wasn't all that good to begin with. Such is Twilight and New Moon. I've always declared that the films are better than the books for a couple main reasons: first, it takes away the terrible writing and just gives you the story as-is (and is also forced to get rid of the pointless scenes... which is a lot of it). Second, it adds much-needed action that was very lacking in the books. So are these by any means good movies? Not particularly. But they are good adaptations, capable of making the stories actually bearable. So that's why I included them here.

But then there are the movies that stick a little too closely to the books. Normally this isn't a problem, but when you have a sometimes word-for-word 2.5 hour movie, it can drag. Especially when you substitute substance for style. This is the case with the first two Harry Potter films (Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets). Putting the page to screen, these are excellent. There's very little that was cut, and what was cut wasn't really anything major. However, where Chris Columbus took some insane liberties with Percy Jackson, he took almost none here. The movie isn't very stylish (outside of Quidditch, which is even outshone by the time we get to Half-Blood Prince). The colors are bright, the clothes are stuffy, the landscapes are flat... visually speaking, compared to the later movies, the first two are boring. Sure, they are adapted nearly word-for-word, but only at the expense of risk-taking. In other words, sometimes being too close can have its issues.

But sometimes the details are what are needed. Sometimes the details are what made the books so good (not saying Harry Potter isn't all about the details... it is. But I'm getting at something different here). For instance, take films like Battle Royale or Blindness. The book version of Battle Royale is one of my favorites. Sure, it's roughly translated, but the level of character development is insane. So I was a bit disappointed with its film adaptation. It cut out all of the character development in lieu of a straight-forward action/horror film. Some say it's one of the greatest foreign films of recent years. I say read the book if you want a deep story with more developed characters. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but as an adaptation, it suffers from cutting out what made the book so good.

Blindness, on the other hand, was literally in the details. The book was raw, gritty, disgusting, and disturbing. The film seemed like a sanitized version. The book detailed how crap (literally) covered everything, how people looked ravished, and just all sorts of disturbing details. Not to mention the terrible situations these characters were put in, such as the rape. Now, the films conveyed some of this just fine, and I actually commend the film for doing as much as it actually did. I also enjoyed how they shortened the ending, which in the book seemed to drag endlessly. The movie just got right to the point.

Similarly, another thing that can make or break an adaptation is how they handle the source's ending. Sometimes they change it to make it more family friendly (Chamber of Secrets). But sometimes they have to change the ending for other purposes--controversy being a good one. Two good ones to talk about here? The Golden Compass and The Mist. Both are on opposite ends of the spectrum on the controversy issue. The Golden Compass changed its ending to avoid controversy. In fact, the movie switched around the second and third acts of the book and then cut the ending completely. There's no religious explanations, no portal into another dimension... none of it. Because of these massive changes, the movie didn't reach the expectations of what not only fans of the book wanted, but what the Catholic Church promised during its boycott. Therefore, the movie tanked. But it wasn't really all that bad.

The Mist, on the other hand, changed the ending from its original story to add controversy. This ending can make or break this movie for you. It can make you say "how original" or "this movie has balls" and think it's one of the greatest horror films in the last decade. Or it can make you hate the film with a passion. At the very least, it leaves your mouth agape like "did they really just do that?" Regardless of what you think, it was a bold move, and I believe more people liked this move more than hated it, so it's essentially regarded positively.

Then you have the open ending. Sometimes the open ending can work. Sometimes they just don't make sense. Two good examples here are Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Both (loosely) based on video games, these films show both sides of the open ending. Resident Evil, while hardly close to the games, has an open ending that leaves the film open for a sequel (which turned out to be a little closer to the games). And this particular ending worked. How? It introduced the character of Nemesis, adding some depth to an otherwise mindless monster. And it worked in the sequel. It was a hint to and an expansion of the games that was mostly ignored throughout the rest of the movie.

On the other end, Silent Hill was pretty close to, at the very least, the atmosphere of the games. In fact, I'd say it's one of the few excellent video game adaptations... if it weren't for the ending. I'm no hater of open-ended movies (I love Cube), but this one just didn't make sense. It tries to be a clever twist ending, but it's just weird and left me staring at the screen like "Um... alright then." The ending nearly ruined what was an otherwise really good adaptation.


"Robert McKee: I'll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you've got a hit. Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you'll be fine."
~ Adaptation.

So what makes a great adaptation? Here's my opinion: it takes the spirit of the source material, takes the best parts of the source material, cuts the bad parts of the source material, and remains stylish and entertaining. I'd like to talk about five main movies that I feel are great adaptations.

The first two, of course, are Harry Potter films (since they've been in the other categories). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is considered by many fans as the worst book of the series. Why? Because it's 832 pages of absolutely nothing. There's no plot, and it takes 800+ pages to get to a plot point that takes maybe 50 pages to explain (the prophecy). Sure, there are important aspects of the book, but these important aspects are, like the rest of J.K. Rowling's books, very subtle and unknown until the last book. So what does the film do? It removes all the unnecessary bits (like Quidditch, which is the majority of the book) and manages to take a much-disliked portion of the book (Grawp) and turn it into an endearing moment in the film. In other words, it keeps the spirit, keeps the important scenes, removes the unnecessary bits, and remains stylish. It also added a line that the book didn't have that I felt should have been there ("Sorry, professor... I must not tell lies.").

I might get arguments here, but I also believe Half-Blood Prince to be an excellent adaptation. Yes, it cuts out a ton of Voldemort's memories. Sure, it cut out the funeral (which was only a couple pages anyway). But most people forget that Half-Blood Prince is mostly a comedy full of the romantic goings-on of the students. There's a decent balance between the light and dark, and the movie captured that perfectly. Does it go anywhere? Not really--it's just a precursor to the final book by introducing Horcruxes. But the film adequately portrays the book, not to mention looks beautiful from a cinematography level. And there are so many clues toward the last movie, you can really tell they thought ahead as they were making this. Some might not like the ending, but it was exactly how the book ended, and I felt it worked just fine. You say "maybe a book can end like that, but this is a movie." I say... segue!

Sometimes the ending of a film wouldn't work if it stayed exactly the same as a book. Prime example... Watchmen. The biggest controversy around this adaptation is its ending. Squid vs. Squidless. Personally, I found the "squid" ending of the graphic novel to almost ruin the entire story. However, it was salvaged by the Rorschach's journal ending. Now the movie completely removed the squid ending, but kept the Rorschach's journal ending. And everything else besides that was nearly panel-for-panel of the book (and equally as stylish). Therefore, I found the movie to be a nearly perfect adaptation.

To tie in the quote at the beginning of this section, you must "wow" the audience with the ending. No adaptation has done that better in recent memory than Speed Racer. Now, I've discovered that most people either love this movie or think it's incredibly stupid. I personally love it. It keeps with the "cheesy and quick" spirit of the original show. It's stylish (in a crayola kinda way). But I have to admit, the movie finalized its brilliance with me in its climax. The final sprint to the finish line was like a kaleidoscopic orgasm of awesome.

But nothing beats what I can only say has to be on of the best adaptations ever: The Princess Bride. In a rare case, I actually read the book after I'd seen the movie (so that might have affected my thoughts). But still, I had trouble getting through the book. Some characters bordered on painful, while the book itself kept a steady line of women-hating, antisemitism, and racism. I'm pretty tolerant when it comes to offensive jokes. But this book was almost too offensive for me at times. Thankfully, they cut all of this out in the film. And this is how the film shines. It cuts out the bad, keeps the good (and sometimes makes it even better), and maintains the overall spirit of the story. There were only a couple instances where I enjoyed what was in the book more than the movie (expanding on character backgrounds and such), but besides that... the movie was far superior.


"Charlie Kaufman: The script I'm starting, it's about flowers. Nobody's ever done a movie about flowers before. So, so there are no guidelines..."
~ Adaptation.

So I guess that answers my question. With Percy Jackson so different from the book, why did I like it so much? I'd say it falls under the "decent" category because, while it maintains the spirit of the book and even enhances the story at times, its third act annoyed me too much. And as we've discovered, it's all about the third act.

To wrap things up...

Bad: Nothing like the source, wrong types of changes, too 'cram-tastic', missing the point

Parts better than (or at least close to) the source, missing some details, risky endings

Stays in spirit, takes the best of the source, cuts the worst of the source, remains stylish

And... that's that.


  1. Wow. Brilliant, Nick. Though now by reading this, I've become a little pumped up to read the original BATTLE ROYALE novel. I quite like your examples (such as the ROYALE/BLINDNESS comparison; SPEED RACER, WATCHMEN, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX), and they're quite fitting and perfectly used to make your point.

    It's posts like this that I like your blog. Cheers!

  2. Thanks! This took me a couple days to write, so I'm glad you like it.

    You totally need to read Battle Royale. It's more psychological than the movie, so it's not all-out action (I mean, action is there, but not non-stop). And there are about 40 something characters. It's great. Like I said, the translation can be iffy at times, but you get over it pretty fast.

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